For this third piece assessing the electoral state of the parties in Wales I turn to the Conservatives. This time last year I was rather upbeat about their electoral prospects, but much less so about their chances of wielding significant power in the National Assembly. As I observed “The Welsh Tories’ biggest problem, though, does not appear to be gaining a reasonable number of seats in the Welsh Assembly. Their problem, rather, is what they are able to do with that presence in the chamber…There is at present no obvious way out of near-permanent opposition party status for the Conservatives in the National Assembly.”
Well, I was right about the latter half at least. The Welsh Tories are as far away from government at the devolved level in Wales as ever. Where I was less accurate was in assessing their electoral prospects for 2016. In my own defence, I think a year ago there was good cause for optimism about Conservative prospects. They had improved their position at the three previous Assembly elections. They had only a few months previously scored their strongest Welsh general election performance (at least in terms of seats) since 1983. And the opinion polls for the National Assembly had consistently been placing the Tories in a decent second place on both ballots.
Given this background, the Conservative’s performance in the 2016 National Assembly election can only reasonably be described as disappointing. The Tories apparently relentless advance in Wales was put firmly into reverse. While they held all their constituency seats, on the regional list vote the Conservatives put in their worst performance since 1999, coming third in every region except Mid and West Wales – with South Wales East seeing the party’s list vote slipping behind that of UKIP. The party also failed to capture any of its constituency targets, including seats which they had won quite comfortably a year earlier.
What caused this Conservative under performance? Some blame must attach to the party leadership and campaign in Wales. Andrew RT Davies has never scored well in terms of his personal ratings with the Welsh public, and public evaluations of his performance in the televised leaders’ debates were not very positive. And perhaps he made a mistake in not leading from the front as constituency candidate in Vale of Glamorgan: post-election, the contrast with Leanne Wood’s approach to the 2016 election looked distinctly unflattering. But the Welsh Tories perhaps also had excessive confidence in their chances in some seats where they had won the previous year.
However, the principal blame for the Welsh Tories’ fate lies, I think, in London. The party here was hit by a series of ‘bad news’ stories from there which cumulatively hurt their electoral chances. The EU referendum meant that Conservative divisions on Europe were played out in public right through the Assembly election campaign. The unpopular March budget, the Panama Papers/Tax row, and the Iain Duncan Smith resignation, also tarnished the Conservative brand in the pre-election period. And there were other matters that had a particular resonance or impact in Wales. The UK government’s response to the crisis facing Tata Steel was not generally viewed as satisfactory. And the Junior Doctors’ dispute in England undermined a key campaign tactic of the Welsh Tories, which was to attack Labour for its record on managing the NHS in Wales. Every time Labour was attacked on health, Carwyn Jones had the easiest of rebuttals: “there is no junior doctors’ strike in Wales”.
Since May, however, much of the political landscape has been upturned. The vote for Brexit in June will have many and profound implications. There is abundant potential for things to go horribly wrong – for Britain, for Wales and for the Conservatives. Managing Brexit successfully will require enormous political skill, and probably also some good luck. But as a political development it also offers some potential political benefits for the Tories. Brexit offers to put in the past the issue of Britain’s EU membership, something that has divided the Conservatives for decades and, in one way or another, helped bring down the last three Conservative Prime Ministers. Brexit would also appear to remove the central raison d’etre of UKIP, thus potentially damaging at least of the Tories’ main competitors.
More immediately, Brexit has meant the departure of David Cameron. New Prime Minister May has seen the sort of poll boost common for a new major party leader, including in our latest Welsh Political Barometer poll. With the Tories running well ahead of Labour in most GB-wide polls, at a time in the political cycle where one would normally expect them to be trailing, there has been speculation about the possibility of an early general election. Theresa May has the perfect pretext should she wish to go to the country, say, next spring: having formulated a position on the desired shape of a Brexit deal, she could claim a need to get a direct mandate from the British people to negotiate such a deal. (I’m not saying that she would or should want to do this; she might prefer to retain as much bargaining flexibility as possible. I’m simply observing the political justification that Brexit might offer were Theresa May to want an early election). With the UK Labour party continuing to look an utter shambles, the Conservatives would likely win such an election with a very substantial majority, thus strengthening her position. However, with Labour having essentially ceased to function as an effective opposition party in parliament, even with a paper majority of only twelve May is not really under significant pressure in Westminster. She can call an election next year if she wishes, and she’d almost certainly win it well. But she is under no great political pressure to do so. That is not a bad position to be in!
The position of the party in the National Assembly is distinctly less good. As only the second party of opposition the Tories are finding, as did Plaid Cymru between 2011-16, that the Welsh media offer them rather limited attention. The Assembly group, which saw no infusion at all of fresh blood in 2016, does not appear to be a very happy entity; its leader was weakened by the 2016 election result, and has poor public ratings, but no obvious replacement appears to exist. The May 2017 local elections are also likely to show the Welsh Tories in a somewhat unflattering light. The party’s performance in local government elections and by-elections in recent years has been very patchy; there currently seem no obvious reasons to expect any difference next May.
Therefore, the Welsh Conservatives find themselves currently in a rather peculiar position. At Westminster they are part of a governing party that currently looks wholly dominant. Elsewhere they look much weaker, and with no obvious prospect of them altering this situation in the next twelve months.